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How I Reply to Media Requests About Colour and Its Effect on Mood

So this is a teeny, tiny rant. However, I would really love it if a reporter writing an article about colour, for residential design, would want to interview me about ANYTHING other than the following, which is a very common request I often receive:

Hi, I am working on a piece for our upcoming November issue and I would love to chat with Maria about colour and its affect on mood. What colours make us happy and calm and how to use them in the home. I’m hoping she has about 30 minutes free over the next week or so to chat via phone. I look forward to hearing from her! 

This was my reply:

“Colour is not that simple. . . what makes people happy is having a look and a feel in their home. Not just because they’ve painted the walls green because it’s calming or blue because it makes you more productive or orange because it will help you be more social.

What makes people happy is choosing the right backsplash tile, for example, not just sticking in a charcoal one because it’s trendy and now they have a kitchen that looks like “new backsplash, oops, OLD dated cabinets.

I’m really not the one to ask about the psychological impact colours have on people. That story has been done and dusted and it’s not as useful for residential design as it is for other industries.

If you want to have a conversation with me about ANYTHING other than, ‘How colours make you feel’, then I’m the right person and I’m available next week.”

She did not reply.

However, sometimes, I will have a great conversation with a reporter who is happy they decided to change the focus of their story because they thought the conversation with me was quite fascinating.

So let’s dive into what I said about the charcoal backsplash shall we?

I received a lovely Ask Maria email from a reader who is helping her Mom decorate her house and this was her question:

My mother installed this backsplash (see photos) and now wants to change the paint, cabinet hardware, light fixtures and textile colors – as per my suggestion.  We’ve been deliberating this for over a year – since my last visit to her home. 

I spent days and days on your blog, purchased and read (multiple times) your undertones e-book and ordered your big color boards – which I’ll have with me when we get down to the big choices in my mom’s kitchen in a couple weeks. 

To balance her severely modern, steel gray backsplash with her maple cabinets, wall color, flooring and dated decor, I suggested the warmest neutral I could think of – BM’s Manchester Tan for the walls.  Then, since I’m a pro at making my muddy colors rhyme with “light and airy,”  I suggested she change the upholstery, light fixtures and carpeting within the space – and here is what I was thinking:

The blue cushion coverings changed to a neutral  beige textured fabric.  Then bring rusty oranges in as accents.  An oriental carpet with rusts, deep blues and greens under the rattan chair seating area, deep orange art glass pendants over the bar and a real statement fixture over the dinette.  (Art glass collections above the cabinets as well.)

That’s basically it.  Can you tell me if I’m on the right track?

The fundamental issue here is that the charcoal backsplash now screams brand new while EVERYTHING else looks old. It’s a common and very easy mistake to make if you don’t understand the impact that installing a brand new trendy finish will have, into an older more dated space.

But back to colour psychology for a second:

If someone were to approach this problem from a ‘How colours make us feel?’ perspective, what could we conclude?

First, here are some definitions and descriptions of the colour GREY:



Gray is solid and stable, creating a sense of calm and composure, relief from a chaotic world. The color gray is subdued, quiet and reserved. It does not stimulate, energize, rejuvenate or excite.

In the meaning of colors, gray is conservative, boring, drab and depressing on the one hand and elegant and formal on the other, yet never glamorous.

Too much of the color gray creates sadness and depression and a tendency to loneliness and isolation. Add some color to change this. source

source (Grey goes with COLOUR. That’s the point)

Okay, so the problem my lovely reader has is that she thinks her Mom’s backsplash tile suddenly looks ultra-modern with her more dated kitchen and countrified decor.  But it’s not that the tile is soooo modern, (Although it is longer than a more traditional 3″x 6″), however, if it had been off-white, we wouldn’t suddenly be feeling compelled to switch out all the decor.

Do we blame the charcoal shade here? Would it make sense to say, “My grey backsplash makes me feel sad and depressed, is that why I don’t like it?”

However, it’s not that simple is it? And that’s not the real issue here.

There are lots of gorgeous grey rooms out there (below), but it’s all context in the world of decorating, and heck even styling.

House Beautiful

Therefore, for reporters to continue to write fluffy articles about “How colour creates a mood and how colour makes you feel” in the world of residential design, is kind of pointless don’t you think?

The best advice I give in my Specify Colour with Confidence workshops is, “If all else fails and you screwed up the undertones, or bought something in the wrong colour, start styling. Distract the eye. Great designers do this all the time.”

Here the problem is not even that the wrong colour was chosen. If you scroll up and look closely, the tile appears to match her Mom’s existing granite nicely.

However, it’s a 90s kitchen. And a charcoal backsplash is 2010s. The first thing you’d have to do, to eliminate the look of ‘Yesterday and Today‘ that’s been created here, is to paint the cabinets the best off-white shade that works with the granite.

Something like this:


But it sounds like her Mom is not open to painting the cabinets, so instead, she is about to make a lot of other expensive changes to re-decorate to try and make her new modern, updated backsplash work with her decor.

And even if the kitchen were to be painted white, re-decorating would still be required, even though the kitchen would now look current. Because you’d still need to repeat the charcoal in your decorating in the kitchen and adjoining rooms to pull it all together.

She talked about adding beige and rust, here’s a room that also picks up the grey tile:


So if you’re still with me, the bottom line is, the solution to this problem has nothing to do colour psychology.

And unless you are building a house from scratch, most people don’t have the total luxury of just asking themselves how a colour makes them feel before they choose one. It has much more to do with “Will it clash with my existing decor?” If you love fresh, minty greens but you have a taupe floor-to-ceiling stacked stone fireplace in your great room, mint green will look very bad in that room. . . unless of course you find a magical fabric or area rug to make that colour look fabulous.

When does colour psychology become necessary and important?  If you are choosing colours for a new branding package, for example. Or you’re planning a new colour scheme for a pediatric wing in a hospital, that’s when you’d want to hire a colourist who specializes in ‘How colour makes you feel’.

The example I just gave you is the primary reason why colour psychology is not an area I focus on. It’s interesting, fun to read, kind of like today’s horoscope, but not that helpful when you start trying to navigate the world of colour in a residential setting.

So if you are a reporter reading this and you’d like to write a really useful article about my Understanding Undertones System because that’s where everyone screws up to begin with? I’m the one. You can reach me here.

And if you have made a mistake like this with a recent installation. Instead of letting it completely boss you around before you throw more money at it, get my help through our  eDesign department

Get colour to do what you want at a Specify Colour with Confidence workshop this Fall.

Related posts:

How to Combine Yesterday and Today in your Renovation

Ask Maria: HELP! I Don’t Want the Same Kitchen as Everyone Else

What’s Missing if Your House is Not Trendy (Who Cares?)








  • Effect. Color’s “effect” on mood. “Affect” isn’t exactly the same thing. Of course, color’s effects on mood may show up in a person’s affect…

    • Maria Killam says:

      In this case, I was writing what the reporter had said in their email so I didn’t think about which one was better! Thanks! Maria

  • Christine says:

    OMG! I love this post! First, thank you for fixing the scrolling issue, I thought it was MY phone. Second, why don’t people look st the big picture before they change one element in their decor, i.e. a backslash?

  • Leigh says:

    Fantastic post Maria!! The examples you gave with the pictures really drive your point home. I’m guessing the homeowners might consider tearing out that backsplash now if they don’t want to paint the cabinets. Love your directness too! Enjoy your weekend!

  • Penny says:

    This post worked great with my iPad. Thank you for fixing! Unfortunately there will always be people looking for that “magic colour” in all the wrong ways . . . Too bad most of those ideas come directly from shelter magazines.

  • Lucy Haines says:

    Maria, I always love your direct approach! I have read so many articles on how to make you feel this way or that. Like you say “interesting” but what help is it when you are decorating? It comes so clear after reading your books, following your blog, and especially taking your class how color works with the elements in your home. I would say that once your home is decorated in the right way with color that works together then it will give you the right feel.

    Hope the lady who wrote to you will convince her mother to at least paint her dated cabinets! Great post as usual.

  • Fran W. says:

    This is spot-on, Maria! As a writer for shelter magazines, I agree with you that the color psychology articles are mostly irrelevant. I’d love to interview you for a story. In fact, I think I’ll pitch my editors on a color-related article . . . perhaps something like ”The correct way to add a new color to your existing interior’. I’d love to see you when you’re in Atlanta next month!

  • Mary Anne O'Keefe says:

    Oh my gosh Maria ! That was a very interesting post!!! I think the colors I use in my home are not the same as those I would wear for clothing and accesories!! For example, my kitchen is creamy white, white subway tiles, stainless appliances and marble counters! New build a year ago! My accent color for stools at the island is pear green….pear greens and blues are in our Pennsylvania Impressionist Art Work, and on the pillows on our sofas and chairs in the great room. Great room drapry panels are charcoal gray…..sofas are charcoal gray… with correct colors everything just flows….in my opinion!!! Thank you!!

  • Janel says:

    Thank you !!!
    I was soooo frustrated!

  • Stacy says:

    I think if her mom got rid of the chairs at the island and the dated decorations on top of the cabinets and repainted the walls, her wood cabinets wouldn’t look so bad. In this case, I think it’s her styling that makes it worse! The rest of it isn’t so bad! Although I would repaint–that mustardy yellow is awful.

  • Tina Meyer says:

    Wow, at last I can scroll down on my iPad, thank you for making it work, Maria, it frustrated me so much before.
    Thank you for a good article. Am looking forward to when your bathroom renovation will be done. Can’t wait to see it.

  • Robin says:

    Hi Maria
    Problem solved! What a pleasure to stroll through your blog today.
    Robin T

  • Judy says:

    For the life of me-I can’t figure out if the granite has yellow in it???

  • Nancy says:

    Loved this Blog .
    I’m just glad I didn’t ask that question 🙂
    I’ve been working on a project ,
    A wood in a new build that was on the outdated side .
    Talk about having a struggle .
    I was struggling .
    Changing it wasn’t a option .
    Till I found the right creamy warm off white quartz .
    I would have painted the trim but not my choice .
    But the right creamy off white made it a lot better then any other color I came across .
    With out following you .’I would not have even thought of using a warm creamy white .
    There are people that say white is boring .
    I’ve found for me it has helped me pull a lot of things together.
    Fixing brown the answer isn’t adding more layers of brown r different shade of brown .
    But a creamy white can sure help .
    Thanks Maria .
    Praying for all the people who lives have been effected by Harvey and Irma very sad and scary .’

  • Mary-Illinois says:

    Hi Maria,
    Personally…I love your rants!! You can tell how frustrated you are. Lol! But your response to the interview request is perfect.
    I also think your reader is expecting a new wall color to be the answer to all the problems that this kitchen has.

  • Susie says:

    I agree with your rant 100%. I am so sick of the color psychology articles/explanations. I personally think that any color can look fantastic or terrible, or make you feel great or awful, because color is a relative phenomenon. I just skip over articles like that. I do like to read why some colors work with other colors or what makes a particular room look great, because it isn’t always evident to me.

  • Rosemary says:

    Love your direct approach as I tell you that on my iPad! I do have a question though, looking at the above dilemma, why do people place their hardware (e.g., esp. those upper cabinets) in that position? It looks all wrong to me! I’ve even seen knobs on cabinets over a fridge placed in the middle of the door edges, grrr drives me crazy. Okay, that’s my rant.

  • Bert says:

    So happy that I can read your blog without all the hassles I normally have. Thanks.

  • Adelaide says:

    All the rules are in this blog It fascinates me that decorating magazines (as we call them down here in Oz), have featured your home, yet still don’t get your message. Seems to me Maria, you need to get yourself a little tv show so you can start demonstrating to the masses. It’s probably just what you don’t want, I can hardly blame you. Very soon we see presenters doing variations on a theme – mostly grey, industrial/and whatever – country, mid-century, modern. It’s crazy. Me? I’m dying to see the coral walls in your bathroom, oh I will be in heaven.

  • Debra says:

    I’m curious as to what makes the cabinets dated? Is it the wood tone, style?I wouldn’t think most people update cabinetry every decade.

    With the backsplash and granite color I do think painting the cabinets the right shade of white would look better.

  • Kay says:

    I would guess that her new-old kitchen problem started when the grey granite was installed. The backsplash makes it worse. Painting the cabs white is really the only thing that will make the kitchen look right. Fiddling around with wall paint and pendants does not address the basic problem, and, IMHO, deep orange with the existing maple would be a terrible mistake–orange on orange. The floor seems to be wood, which would look great with white cabs and wouldn’t need a rug, but just blends in with the maple. Why the objection to painting the cabs? Is there a man in the picture who believes that painting wood is a desecration?

    With a grey and white kitchen (walls painted same as cabs) and basic jeans floor, the mother could choose whatever color she likes best for pendants and other accents, and could change them out at minimal expense if she wanted to.

  • Cheryl says:

    I am giggling and smiling, and laughing inside. As usual, you hit the nail on the head!! You go girl!

  • Diane says:

    Still learning here so please bare with me. Would this kitchen be better if the grey backsplash was changed to a warm white/cream subway tile and then repeat the warm white/cream in a quartz counter on the island? Then painting the kitchen walls a warm white? Do we always have to paint wood cabinets or can we work with them, especially in homes that have a lot of wood in them. This looks like a very expensive kitchen with custom cabinets. I agree that updating the knobs and lighting would be a plus.

    • Maria Killam says:

      Yes the subway tile should have been white (whatever shade that goes with the granite). . . no repeating of the white on the walls would be necessary at that point. That would be the easiest way to not have the decor suddenly be entirely bossed around by the new trendy charcoal colour. Thanks for your comment, Maria

  • Phyllis E says:

    In addition to the “new vs old” issue, the color combination of the charcoal tile and the light brown cabinets just doesn’t look very pleasing together, at least to my eye. Each finish, in and of itself is nice looking: the maple cabinets are pretty (even if dated), and the tile is attractive. But, together, the colors do not complement each other,imho. It kind of reminds me of a fashion faux pas: wearing charcoal pants with a brown sports jacket or blazer! OUCH!
    One solution, if the homeowner really doesn’t want to paint the cabinets, would be to paint the tile an off-white; remember you had a post about a client who had their bathroom tile painted white? I just happened to be in the hardware store today and noticed a diy epoxy paint for tile called, “Hard as Tile” or something like that. I’m sure there are others out there as well. (I’m actually thinking I might try it on my subway tile, which is not white, but wish it was a nice, soft, warm white. I just couldn’t find anything other than stark, cool white tiles (or pink-undertoned “biscuit”) back 6 years ago when I was originally looking, so I ended up with a sandy color I do not really like! Perhaps that is similar to how the homeowner above ended up with gray tile!)

    • Maria Killam says:

      Hi Phyllis, I would resist painting brand new backsplash tile. . . at this point I would probably just replace it. . . I would only suggest painting backsplash tile if the kitchen were really old and this was one way to extend the life of it a little further and live with something that isn’t fabulous. . . thanks for your comment, it’s an option for some kitchens for sure! Maria

  • great advice from a master at selecting colours, why would anyone try to design anything without understanding colour in this way. Sure hope a writer contacts you soon Maria as I would love to see articles appear addressing this very issue.

  • Vilma Silva says:

    Your examples lead me to think that she doesn’t need to paint the cabinets. There is enough wood that is working with the grey and beige. What I look at is the yellow on the walls and the blue and white cushions. It appears to be a kind of Tuscan color scheme clashing with the modern grey backsplash. So, I’d say that your writer is on the right track with lightening and simplifying the color scheme.

    P.S. If pink beige is such a problem color, why is there so much of it?

  • So well said Maria…no more to say but really WELL SAID to the reporter and to the bad choices people make on trying to make something old look new.

  • Fantastic post Maria!! your approach to design is very different and that’s great about you thanks for providing such a great information and design ideas i always loved your blogs.

  • Amanda says:

    Kay hit it head on….there is a man in the picture! And in my mom’s case, he also chose the hardware so she’s hesitant to replace it – just yet. The cabinetry is all custom, not that old and is so solid and beautiful close up that I can see her hesitancy, especially since the cabinets weren’t part of the original dilemma. She wanted to paint and freshen (and yes, eliminate the fake greenery on top). Then a decorator talked her into the silver/gray backsplash – which she was ready to rip out the morning after! (No pill for that boo boo!) So, she’s going to paint the walls (Manchester tan — please, please tell me I suggested well there), replace the backsplashes, on opposing walls, with a soft creamy arabesque tile that has a hint of darkened edging and add a some excellent art glass pieces above. The paint is going up first then the final tile selection and only then will the other accents be selected and installed. I’ll post some after pictures for you all – hopefully – this has been quite a test kitchen of vulnerability for her! Thank you all for your thoughts and contributions – especially you, Maria! Stay tuned for my “everything in my new home is pink” ask Maria question! Coming soon to a blog post near your ♥️s!

  • Always love reading your color advice. This is a great read, As an Interior Designer and decor blogger, I agree with you that the color psychology articles will not provide needed direction. Choosing a color to live with your home is daunting for many. The most popular question I get in the field, is what color? Then they say they just want white! Maybe it feels safe. Our world is very visual, and many of these conversations need images and sometimes a little trust for the professional. Either way, I appreciate your conversation and method for adding color.

  • Linda says:

    Yes yes yes! To that post! I’ve experienced this first hand! Learning as I go all about color and the big picture. We used your services and are delighted with our kitchen update, but are now looking at are fairly new sofas which just( color) are just wrong with open concept kitchen.

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